History Through Pop: Eminem’s “I Love the Way You Lie”

I’ve been meaning to resurrect this series (previously featuring the Barenaked Ladies, Elbow, and Spoon) for a while now.  And I’ve had some tunes in mind (Ben Folds’s “Jesusland” seems ripe for a conversation with Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland), but I thought I’d try something different: instead of selecting a song from my own collection, I’ll look into What the Kids are Listening To.  Mostly crap, if the iTunes top ten is to be believed: Katy Perry, Usher, Eminem, and someone/thing called “B.o.B.” which I’m frankly too frightened too investigate further.  But if the point of this series is to use pop music to talk about the past (which it is), then I suppose I should try a song that my students might actually know and, ugh, like.  So, here goes with today’s top song on iTunes: Eminem’s “I Love the Way You Lie.”

I’ll pass on the general themes of the lyrics, which seem to be a mixture of old-Eminem’s misogyny mixed with the allegedly-new-and-mature Eminem‘s regret and guilt.  Instead, I’ll focus on one line:

Cause when it’s going good
It’s going great
I’m Superman
With the wind in his bag
She’s Lois Lane

Ahh, but who is Louis Lane, exactly?  I never got into comics — too busy fighting with my little brothers — but I am familiar with the character through Teri Hatcher’s portrayal in my pubescent years and my general consciousness of pop culture.  But Wikipedia teaches all.  And, apparently, “In the earliest Golden Age comics, Lois was featured as an aggressive, career-minded reporter.” [sidenote digression: note the pairing of “aggressive” and “career-minded.”  One wonders if the anonymous author believes that any woman who is career-minded is therefore also aggressive; what “aggressive” means, exactly; and whether career-minded men are also, inherently, aggressive.  That there is interpretation, folks, despite Wikipedia’s claims to objectivity.  In short: don’t let the kids use Wikipedia or any encyclopedia as a source; they are too willing to trust it as neutral. /sidenote digression].  If Wikipedia is to be believed (and sure, let’s go for it), Lane’s character was assertive from the get-go in 1938. Students might be shocked to hear this: “But, but…that’s before Rosie the Riveter!”  Teaching Moment! on at least two counts:

1. Big picture: let’s not fall into the trap of a progressive narrative of women’s rights (or anyone’s rights, for that matter).  There are ups and downs and all-arounds.  The constant feature is the presence of people fighting for and taking those rights at every opportunity and in many different ways, not only at the ballot box or on the assembly line.

2. Historical context: There are many books, I’m sure, that could give us more detail about the status of women’s liberation in 1938 (your suggestions welcome in the comments), but the book that comes to my mind is Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.  It’s mostly about the post-WWII, Cold War period (hence the subtitle), when white, middle-class Americans turned inward to suburban “domestic containment” for security, satisfaction, and happiness.  But May sets the stage for that part of her argument by looking into the post-Depression, pre-WWII era (when Lois Lane was introduced).  May argues that the crisis of the Depression forced Americans to try different approaches to economic security–the big one, of course, was women going to work and becoming independent.  Hollywood approved of and encouraged this idea, as seen in a number of stars like Joan Crawford; it seems like DC comics might have been doing the same with Lois Lane.  But pop culture also reinforced the idea that women could not indeed have it all, that they had to make a choice: career or family.  And family was the preferred choice for many women, and the only legitimate option for society (institutional barriers, such as New Deal rules re: multiple federal employees in the same family, also discouraged married women’s participation in the job force).  Women working during the Depression out of necessity was viewed as unfortunate but necessary, something that Americans looked forward to leaving behind when prosperity returned.  So the pre-WWII, Lois Lane period provided both the model and anti-model for the Cold War 1950s domestic-containment family.

At least that’s what I remember from my comprehensive exams.  Also, May used a neat survey about sex lives in the 1950s, which I think students might be into.  And it just might make up for having made them learn something from, of all things, an Eminem tune.


Organizing Update: Task Force Adjunct

I’ve been away from my desk for about a week–officiating a wedding in the Third World, an experience I’m still processing and will write about soon.  But for now, a quick update: the college where I’m teaching has decided to follow the recommendation of our little group of adjunct revolutionaries, and put together a “task force” to investigate, address, and (hopefully) alleviate adjunct concerns.   This is a victory? [pitch of voice increasing and punctuated with a question mark].  We’ll see what happens.  Task Force Adjunct won’t meet until next fall, so it’s not like this is going to have immediate consequences.  Laying the groundwork, building foundation, all of that.  Blah, blah, blah: where’s my damn health insurance?

The Troubles with Organizing Adjuncts

For the last year-and-a-half, I’ve been working as an adjunct at a Local Liberal Arts College (LLAC).  The department is great, the students are by and large wonderful to work with, and I love being my own boss for all intents and purposes.  But there are problems.  The pay is low (I’d make more as a TA at my grad institution) and I don’t get health insurance (which I would get as a TA).  I figured that there are probably other adjuncts who have similar frustrations, and so back in the fall, I sweet-talked the Dean’s secretary into giving me a list of all the adjuncts on campus.  I put together an e-mail list, called up a pub to set aside a few tables, and had a get-together in September.  My intentions from the beginning were to see about organizing the adjuncts into a union.  I’ve had some very good union experiences (at my MA institution) and some decent union experiences (at PhD school).  Moreover, I am well convinced that unions are indeed the way to go in a situation where the workers are basically expendable.  And that’s the case for adjuncts: we’re basically temp workers, a dime a dozen–you can’t spit without hitting a history PhD who is desperate for a job.  But together we could have some serious bargaining power, as LLAC, like other schools, has increasingly come to depend on temp workers–about a third of the faculty are adjuncts.  Together, we could shut the motherfucker down [says the tough-talking pseudo-radical].

Many of the people who came to the adjunct meetings were sympathetic, and sometimes enthusiastic, about a union drive.  But a few–and one dude in particular–were averse, if not hostile, to the idea.  And more than that: no one was coming to the meetings.  There are 100+ adjunct on the list, but no more than eight people would show up.  A few more would e-mail with apologies about schedule conflicts, etc., but the fact remained that people weren’t involved.  Hardly a positive indicator for union potential.  Overall, it seemed that the adjuncts were either too busy, too apathetic, or too satisfied to start the revolution.

So a change in strategy was necessary.  I’m putting off the revolution for now, and instead following a suggestion offered by another adjunct: sitting down with the university and talking it over.  A few other adjuncts and I met with representatives from the Dean’s office and proper faculty, and we’re pressing for a committee to be established to (a) come to terms with the scope of the University’s dependence on adjuncts; (b) investigate the concerns and hopes expressed by adjuncts; and (c) assess the current relationship between the university, departments, and adjuncts and see whether it might be changed for the better.

In the words of Anna Louise Strong (voice for the Seattle General Strike of 1919), “we are starting on a road that leads – NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!”  Except back off on the capital letters and exclamation mark.  I think this committee will come up with some recommendations, probably draft some policies and procedures, and hopefully clear up some things about how the university relates to its adjuncts.  Hell, maybe we’ll even get a salary ladder and health care.  But our comrades in Indiana have had less luck with that, and I have a feeling that when it becomes clear that what the adjuncts want will cost the university money, we’re going to have trouble.  At that point, the ambivalent adjuncts are going to have to make some decisions about what they want and how they can get it.  Maybe then they’ll show up to the damned meetings.

Working the Undergraduates

Yesterday, a student came to office hours and laid this on me: “I e-mailed the rest of the class, and there are a lot of us that think the workload for this class is excessive.”  Something like that, anyway–the short of it was that he and other students have been talking about how hard my class is compared to their other classes.

First, I gotta give points to this student for having the courage to come talk to me about this.  Maybe it’s because I’m just an adjunct and not as intimidating as proper professors, but to confront the person who assigns your grade is pretty gutsy.  Kudos to him for that.  And I’ll take some kudos, as well, for creating an environment where students feel comfortable approaching their instructor in such a way.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can take all the credit for that.

Second: How the hell am I supposed to respond to that?  I mean, my immediate response was to thank the student for letting me know, because this is something that I want to be aware of; then I rushed into a muddled explanation/defense/set of suggestions for dealing with the work load.  But obviously I need to address this somehow in class.  A group of students are now grumbling about my work load, and that grumbling could very well turn into stubborn resistance to fully participating in the class: if the students feel that the work load is unfair, they will feel justified in withholding their labor in whatever ways they can and still be safe.  We’re not talking a full-scale rebellion–they’ll still come to class, submit their work, etc.–but it’ll be like pulling teeth to get them to talk in class.  And as it’s a discussion-based course, that’s going to make my life miserable.  So: what to do?  A few options come to mind:

  1. Tell them all to go to hell.  They saw the syllabus a week before class started, and they could have got out while they had the chance.   Hell, they could still leave.  Nobody’s got a gun to their head.  If you don’t like it, fuck off.  I am sooooo tempted to say this.  But no matter how correct it is–and I’m right, right?–it would be unproductive.
  2. Show them how much I’ve reduced the work load in this particular class over the past five years.  When I first started this course, I assigned five books for course reading (each with a book review), plus a semester-long original research paper requiring ten secondary and ten primary sources.  As it is now, they have to read three books for class, and they have a series of assignments leading to a research paper proposal, not an actual research paper, based on three secondary and three primary sources.  So I could basically waltz into class and say, “You think this is hard?  You should have seen this class three years ago!  That’s hard.”  Again, though, I can’t imagine this would be productive.  The students could simply respond with “Okay, it’s better than before, but it’s still bad.”  Which would probably drive me to response #1.
  3. Address in a delicate manner the fact that college is meant to be challenging.  I’m thinking of using a series of analogies, like: if you want to get stronger, you lift heavier weights; if you want to play an instrument better, you play more difficult music; if you want to be a better chef, you cook more challenging dishes.  Somehow the students need to come to understand that this class isn’t meant to check what they already know and can already do, but to get them to learn more and to improve their academic skills.
  4. Provide the students with some strategies on handling the work load.  Stuff like scheduling your work week; forming study groups; etc.  These are first-year students, mostly, and they’re still figuring things out–although, unlike the fall, they now have some confidence that they’ve figured out the game.  Come to think of it, this is probably a pretty big part of the problem: these students have developed a bit of arrogance about what college is supposed to be like (based on the four classes they had last semester), I come along and push them harder, and they kick back. Hmmm….
  5. Talk with some other faculty about their work loads for similar courses.  The student who visited me yesterday said friends of his in similar courses reported work loads ranging from a bit harder to much easier.  I explained to the student that there’s a delicate balance between leveling course expectations and providing professors the freedom they need to teach the way they best see fit.  But I can also understand the student’s frustration.  Frankly, though, I’ve lowered the bar as much as I think is responsible; if there really are professors who teach similar courses with a reduced work load, they’re letting these students off too easy.  Which, to me anyway, indicates a basic lack of respect for what these students are capable of and what they deserve.

Obviously, this little talk left me shaken.  It’s some combination of anger, frustration, self-righteousness, and confusion, and I’m not sure how this gets resolved.

The Unfortunate Passion of an Undergraduate History Major

While working on my dissertation, I’m adjuncting (more on my efforts to unionize in some other post), and a couple of “my” students have asked for my advice about graduate school.  Like many people, my knee-jerk reaction is to tell them to run the other direction.  But I also understand that for some of these students, there really doesn’t seem to be any other option.  And I’m not talking the “I’ve-never-been-out-of-school-so-what-else-am-I-gonna-do?” student, who clearly should not go to graduate school.  I’m talking about the students who are truly passionate about doing the work of history, who love to read, research, write, and teach.  I met with one such woman yesterday, and I went through the litany of problems with getting a PhD in history: the crazy faculty, the even crazier (and sometimes nasty) grad student colleagues, the meager allowance, and, of course, the horrid job prospects.  When I took a moment to breathe, the student asked, “Well, I’m not sure what to do, then.  Just abandon my passion?”

Ouch.  She didn’t mean for that to sting, but it did.  A few reasons: first, have I become so cynical, materialistic, and bourgeois that all of my decisions are based on career opportunities?  When did that happen?  And second: what kind of hypocrite am I?  I mean, I know damned well what’s going to happen in a couple of years: I’m going to get bitch-slapped by the job market.  And I’ll come back for more, because I frankly don’t know what else to do with my life.  Part of that comes from having done this for the last 10+ years of my life, and at this point, I’m all in, baby, win or lose.  But the more important part is that I can’t think of anything else worth doing–that this is important work.

So I told the student, no, don’t abandon your passion.  Go for it.  You’re going to do really well in graduate school, and don’t worry about the job market.  There’s no way of knowing what it’ll look like in five years, and there’s no point in worrying.  Do some smart things if you can–take a resume-boosting job between undergrad and graduate school; build good relationships with your family (you’ll probably need them more than you think you should in five years); marry money (just kidding.  Kind of).  And prepare yourself for the suckiness of graduate school and the job market.  But don’t give up on the only thing you know and want to do, because you’re exactly the kind of person we need doing it.

Post-Fellowship Season, AHA, First Semester, etc.

Yet another long spell since my last post.  I’ll get better, I promise.

Beyond the usual December/January personal business (holidays, etc.), I’ve been attending to some important or at least interesting things over the last few months:

1) Teaching.  I taught a class on African American history last semester, and it kicked my ass.  I had a lot of background reading to do just to keep up with the students’ excellent questions–seriously, these folks were brilliant, and I had to be on top it in order not to look like a total fool.  But there was also the challenge of teaching history to some students who were clearly more interested in hitting the picket lines and protest marches now. In suggesting that we pay understand and appreciate historical context and change over time as well as continuity, I’m pretty sure I came off as a reactionary.  Maybe, in the eyes of some of my students, a racist.  I think my student evaluations came in yesterday, so I’ll write more about this after I process that information.

2) Fellowship applications.  I love teaching, but it chews up a lot of time each week and doesn’t bring in much cash (at least when you’re adjuncting).  So I’ve been sending off fellowship applications like a mad man, trying to get myself set for next year so that I can pound through my dissertation.  To date, I’ve applied for four major (year-long) fellowships and three research travel grants, for a total of about $90,000.  Wouldn’t it be great to get all of them?  Or one of them?  Or at least a thank you note for having applied?  We’ll see if any of that comes through.  Doubt it.

3) AHA (American Historical Association) Conference.  For the first time, I hit the AHA.  It’s like most other conferences I’ve been to, but with all the annoying factors amped up by degrees of magnitude: graduate students kissing the asses of big-shot historians in some vain hope that they will be remembered; big-shot historians giving speculative presentations that a graduate student wouldn’t get away with; etc.  But there’s also the job application process, which is fucked up.  I had heard rumors, but didn’t expect this level of craziness.  It’s like this: if you’re lucky enough to get an interview, you show up in the job hall and take a seat in the waiting room, along with everyone else who’s applying for jobs–including the one you’re angling for.  When your name is called, you walk down a long hallway–you can almost hear shouts of “Dead Man Walking!”–and head into a cubicle for an interview.  I don’t know what happens in there, exactly, but there’s probably some other medieval ritual, possibly involving a torture device.  I’m glad I went to check it out so I know what to expect when I go on the market.

With all that behind me, I’m headed into research and writing in earnest now.  You know: the actual writing-a-dissertation part of being ABD.

Grumpy Bastard

I’ve been doing my level best* to confine my teaching–including prep work, etc.–to Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving M/W/F for dissertation.  But I keep falling behind, and this week I had to stay up late on Monday and get up early on Tuesday to grade and prep lectures.  Predictably, classes yesterday went poorly.  Fine; we’re allowed bad days, I say.  I’m more concerned that I was a truly grumpy and unpleasant bastard from Monday night through Tuesday.  The students, fortunately, didn’t bear the brunt of it.  My spouse, unfortunately, did.  Turns out I’ve developed an impossible need for absolute silence when I work, and it becomes even more exacerbated when I’m under the gun.  My spouse having the audacity to breathe or offer me a glass of water–well, that was simply unacceptable, and I delivered a few sharp and extremely ill-advised remarks.  Ugh.  Apologies galore, and my spouse forgave and understood, proving once again that I am the junior partner in the relationship.

Lessons learned?  Get my shit done during the day, especially if it’s due tomorrow.  If I’m going to work in the evening, choose stuff that’s not time-sensitive–reading a book for my dissertation is fine, but grading papers that need to be returned tomorrow is not.  And if that means that I need to do teaching prep during part of a dissertation day, so be it.

* I love that phrase.  It ranks right up there with “I don’t give a flying fuck.”  Which, of course, I shouldn’t say.  Dirty, dirty words.